Cory Mccartney
Thursday November 13th, 2008

Remember when we were knee-deep in those top 10 showdowns just oozing with national title implications? Those were the days. OK, those days were just last weekend, but a lackluster schedule of games for Week 12 will make you wish you could fast-forward to next week's slate, which includes Texas Tech-Oklahoma. But in the meantime, let's get psyched for the week's lone Top 25 clash in Gainesville.

1. Florida may be the hottest team in the nation right now. The Gators wrapped up the SEC East title with last weekend's rout of Vanderbilt, setting up a date with Alabama in the conference championship game on Dec. 6 in Atlanta. But there's still work to do in the meantime if Florida is going to stay in the BCS title hunt and it begins with South Carolina.

Of course, the way the Gators have been playing, would would bet against them setting up that de facto national semifinal with the Crimson Tide? After a one-point loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 27, Tim Tebow claimed, "You will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season." The Gators have backed up Tebow's words, rattling off five straight wins, all by at least 28 points, including victories over LSU and Georgia.

During that span, the Gators' offense has caught fire, racking up 48.6 points and 446 yards per game. The running game has piled up 234.6 yards per game during that stretch and characteristically it's come from a deep cast of ball carriers. Jeffery Demps, who averages a blistering 9.6 yards per carry, has led the team in rushing twice (against Kentucky; co-leader with Chris Rainey vs. Arkansas). Emmanuel Moody paced Florida against Georgia, and Tebow led the charge in the victory over Vanderbilt.

While the offense has come alive of late, the defense has been stifling all season. Ranking fourth nationally in scoring defense (11.8 ppg), the Gators have allowed more than 21 points just once (giving up 30 in the loss to the Rebels) and yielded a combined 29 points in the past three games.

2. Despite being a 21-point underdog, South Carolina is no pushover. The Gamecocks head to The Swamp having won two straight and six of their last seven to improve to 7-3. And about those three losses to Georgia, LSU and Vandy: all three came by seven points and South Carolina led each game at halftime.

Credit the Gamecocks' nasty defense for keeping it in contention for a New Year's Day bowl. The SEC's top-ranked unit (256.5 yards per game, third nationally) boasts the conference leader in sacks in linebacker Eric Norwood, who has five in the last two games. Despite giving up 255 yards through the air against Arkansas, South Carolina has been strong against the pass, ranking fourth in the nation (155.1 yards per game). This dominant defense has helped mask an offense that's been mediocre at best.

In typical Steve Spurrier fashion, South Carolina is juggling quarterbacks. Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia have been splitting time. Tommy Beecher, who started the season opener, hasn't seen the field since Sept. 27. No matter who's at the helm, the attack is erratic, ranking 86th in total offense. The line hasn't helped matters. On top of allowing 33 sacks (116th nationally), the Gamecocks have managed just 103.5 rushing yards per game (107th).

3. It's Spurrier ... back in Gainesville. The Ol' Ball Coach, who had a .813 winning percentage at Florida from 1990-2001, doesn't think that his homecoming is as big a deal the second time around. "I think that's pretty old news," Spurrier said earlier this week. "I don't think it'll be a big deal. It'll just be the Gamecocks against the Gators."

It may not be as venom-filled as Nick Saban's return to Alabama last weekend, but it still remains a major storyline when Spurrier returns to The Swamp. The man won a Heisman playing for the Gators and coached Florida to a national championship. Not to mention fans still wear his throwback jersey. He's definitely a big part of that Florida mystique, no matter whose visor he's sporting these days. But you have to wonder: What would it do to his approval rating at his alma mater if he happened to derail the Gators' national title dreams?

It nearly happened two years ago in his first trip to Florida with South Carolina. The Gators won 17-16, needing a late blocked field goal. That season, Florida went into the game 8-1 and ranked fourth in the BCS standings. This season, the Gators are 8-1 and ranked fourth in the BCS standings. Hmm.

The cards would seem to be stacked up against Spurrier, what with the Gamecocks being 0-11 all-time in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and Florida outscoring its opponents 243-57 on its current winning streak. In typical Spurrier fashion, he's inflating his opponents' ego, saying "Florida has a better team this year than they had two years ago that won the national championship." Sounds like the Ol' Ball Coach has 'em right where he wants 'em.

South Carolina's defense has been among the nation's best. So how do you gameplan for it? I asked a coach from one of the Gamecocks' opponents for his thoughts. Here's what he had to say:

"They're as good as we've played. They've got 11 guys that all like to run to the football. They mix things up. They don't stay in one defense and they play hard and I think they've very well-coached and they've playing with a lot of confidence.

"They've going to load folks down in the box and make you try and throw the football and make you beat them one-on-one. I think the people that have scored against them are the ones that can do that, but you're not going to run the football very successfully against them when they're doing that.

"Norwood is the one, they move him around -- sometimes he's a linebacker and sometimes he's on the defensive line. What he is, is just a football player. He's not going to be the biggest, when you look at him physically he's not real impressive when you him compare him to the other ones. But when you watch him, he's the one that makes a lot of plays.

"I don't think there's any question [you need balance against them]. I don't think you can do either one: I don't think you can run the ball every snap or throw the ball every snap. They bring more than you can protect sometimes and you're not going to be successful. You're not going to have a quarterback left if you don't run it some. You gotta find ways to run it and you gotta find ways to throw it."

Florida 35, South Carolina 17. The Gamecocks' defense will be the best that Florida has seen during its streak, but the Gators' offense is on a whole other level right now. Even if South Carolina's defense can succeed in containing Florida, there's no reason to think the Gamecocks offense can take advantage of it. The Gators will take another step toward setting up the next Game of the Year: Florida vs. Alabama.

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